Climate ‘migration’ requires a global response in anticipation

By Jennifer Ashton* CLA Director

Photo by go_greener_oz (Flickr)

A recent UN report warns that there may be as many as one billion climate migrants by 2050. The problem makes the Covid-19 virus crisis seem small beer.

As yet, there are no mechanisms in place to deal with mass migration movement on this scale. The report has been highlighted in The Lancet medical journal, which refers to the health impacts.

Climate change is not new. In Australia, our horrendous bushfire season in 2019/2020 has concentrated minds like never before, but governments of low-lying countries have been working for two decades to find solutions for their people if/when sea levels rise.

For some Pacific countries, such as Fiji and New Guinea, there is sufficient higher-level land to allow relocation of inundated villages. Relocation has already happened, although it is extremely difficult when land ownership is by tribes, clans and social groups.

But islands such as Tuvalu (population 10,000) and Kiribati (population 180,000) would disappear. Further afield, the Maldives (population 385,000) is also low lying. The most staggering potential disaster is Bangladesh, established on river deltas, with its current population of 163 million. Figures vary, but a sea level rise of 1m would flood at least 20% of the country and displace 30 million people.

Can islanders buy a stake in Australia?

In 2007, the Maldives government approached Australia to buy land here. Tuvalu and Kiribati started discussion later. They hoped for a land grant. This caused all sort of problems, because none of these countries or their citizens wanted to relinquish their identity or nationality. Could Australia host another country within its borders?

Furthermore, individuals were upset that they could possibly stop being a Tuvaluan or a Kiribatian – this was their heritage and culture. Kiribati has now purchased 8 square miles of an island in Fiji.

In Australia, eight Torres Strait Islanders brought a complaint against the Australian Government to the UN Human Rights Committee in May 2019, as graves and sacred sites had been destroyed and houses inundated by rising sea levels.

They attended the Global Summit in New York last September and, through the Australian Ambassador, issued an invitation to Scott Morrison to visit the islands, something neither he nor the Energy and Environment Minister, Angus Taylor, has done. $25 million has now been allocated for building sea walls and repairing jetties, but no move has been made on their call for a 65% reduction in emissions.

Australia has at least tacitly acknowledged the threat of rising seas to the Pacific, although the response has sorely disappointed Pacific leaders who have called for global action to reduce emissions. Our aid program, including $500 million pledged last year when our Prime Minister attended the Pacific Islands Forum, has components to mitigate climate change there…but no change in Australian domestic energy policies.

Definition of refugee needs updating

Are these soon to be dislocated people refugees? While the term climate refugee is now bandied about what does it mean? Yes, these people cannot get protection from the ravages of a changed climate by their government but they do not face persecution.

No wonder that Germany has already rejected asylum seekers claiming refugee status on the grounds of climate change. It is not covered in the Geneva Convention, which was the 1961 effort to define who is a refugee (the definition still in use), namely a person fleeing persecution on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, political belief or being a member of a social group – which does not include a refugee fleeing a flooded island.

Progress on basic recognition for climate migrants has been slow. The first UN ruling – that a refugee fleeing the effects of the climate emergency could not be returned to their home country – came in January 2020, but only as part of a ruling that denied a Kiribati citizen asylum in New Zealand, on the grounds that the threat he faced was not “imminent”.

Although the ruling provides a potential avenue for climate migrants on an international level, it provides little guarantee for action by individual countries.

And the climate change area in terms of possible flooding is a minefield! The numbers from the Pacific may be small enough to handle in an ad hoc manner, when the crisis is imminent, but global numbers could be astronomical!

*  Jennifer Ashton is ‘retired’ from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees after two decades operating from Zambia to Kazakhstan, including two years with UNAIDS in Myanmar. During both 2015 and 2016 she was called back to UNHQ in Geneva to help kick start urgent refugee relief projects. Her career started with the then-AUSAID and with Australian NGOs (in Cambodia from 1986-1989, work for which she received an OAM). Her first qualification in social work was followed by a Masters-by-correspondence through Deakin Uni as a nightly respite from the harsh daily realities of remote refugee camps. She is CLA’s refugee ‘Champion’, leading the organisation on refugee and asylum issues.

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